Champaign, Ill. — Early in the first quarter Saturday, Illinois defensive end Carroll Phillips drove Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave to the ground on a hard sack.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said Stave passed the sideline concussion protocol, but when the quarterback went back in the game he didn’t look right.
“You could tell he wasn’t getting the plays,” Chryst said, forcing him to turn to Bart Houston. “We thought Bart was going to be our best chance on it.”
Chryst thought right.
Houston was 27-of-33 for 232 passing yards, leading Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) to a 24-13 victory at Illinois.
The junior threw for two touchdowns and had two interceptions. Before Saturday, Houston was 5-of-9 passing in three brief appearances this season and had thrown just four passes in his first two years at Wisconsin.
“Yeah, I’ve been waiting years — three or four or something like that — so yeah, it’s fun to play the game again,” Houston said.
The loss was the second in a row for Illinois (4-3, 1-2), a team struggling with injuries and facing four of its last five games on the road.
Statistically, Wisconsin dominated Illinois, gaining 419 yards to 333, running 80 plays to 56 for the Illini and keeping the ball for over 40 minutes.
But interim Illinois coach Bill Cubit said they were just a handful of missed plays away from a potential win.
“I give their guys a lot of credit, and I still think we were right there,” Cubit said. “When we have the chance to make a big play, we’ve got to make it.”
Wisconsin looked in charge midway through the third quarter, but Illinois was still well within range, trailing 17-13.
That all changed, though, over the next two possessions.
Wisconsin ground out a 13-play, 65-yard drive that chewed up 7 minutes and 39 seconds, and ended with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Houston to Alex Erickson for a two-score advantage.
The Badgers defense iced it when Illini quarterback Wes Lunt threw a ball that linebacker T.J. Edwards tipped and safety Michael Caputo picked off at the Badgers’ 49.
Illinois never threatened again.
Erickson was Houston’s top target Saturday. The senior receiver caught 10 balls for 96 yards and the touchdown. He was also Wisconsin’s top rusher with four carries for 81 yards.
Houston found his rhythm early with Robert Wheelwright.
Six plays after Stave’s exit, Houston threw to Wheelwright, who reached over an Illinois defensive back to pull down a 23-yard touchdown pass. That gave Badgers their first lead at 7-3, less than a minute into the second quarter.
Illinois was missing starting tailback Josh Ferguson for a second straight game after he injured his right shoulder against Nebraska.
Freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn was the only ball carrier for Illinois, finishing with 13 carries for 55 yards. Most of those yards came on Illinois’ only touchdown, a 36-yard burst through the middle with 7:48 left in the third to give the Illini a 13-10 lead.
“When we scored the long run, we’re there,” Cubit said.
But the focus was squarely on Lunt and his group of mostly young, inexperienced receivers.
Lunt had 278 yards passing with one interception.
The Badgers stayed within a game of Iowa in the Big Ten West with games left against Rutgers, Maryland, Northwestern and Minnesota. None of those teams has a winning record in the conference.
The loss pushes the Illini two games back of Iowa and still looking for two wins to gain bowl eligibility. Illinois’ only remaining home game is against No. 1 Ohio State.